“My really young kid just came out, How does she know? Is there a biological age when people know?”
Question Submitted Anonymously
Answered by LaShay Harvey Jones, M.Ed.
Sexual orientation in young people is often this indescribable feeling of attraction that can be confusing. That’s the thing about attractions: they are instinctive. We rarely question the sexual orientation of the 8-year-old boy who puts gum in the hair of the girl he likes. We just “know”he likes her. Young people are keenly aware of their feelings, even if they don’t always communicate them well.
There have been a few studies conducted on the coming out process* and most have found that the process of coming out happens through a series of stages. Rather than a biological age as a marker (like walking by 12 months, potty trained by 24 months, etc.), coming out is just one stage of a larger process of sexual identity development, and there’s no set biological age to mark when it occurs. In other words, when a person asks, “Could I be gay/lesbian/trans/etc.?” that is often just one stage in the development of their sexual identity. It is important to know that these stages are fluid and a person can experience more than one stage at a time, which means your child could experience these at any age.
Things you can do:
Think of this time as a journey. This marks an important moment in time when you may let go of old expectations for your child, while at the same time gaining a deeper understanding of them.
Cry if you like. Absolutely! It is totally normal to be overwhelmed with emotions when your child tells you such big news. Make sure to take care of yourself.
Ask for patience. It is understandable in the beginning that you will want and need to work through your emotions. Ask for patience and time from your child, other family members, and your spouse/partner while you do that. Just know that avoiding the matter can cause your child to feel unloved and uncared for.
Things you shouldn’t do:
Tell them they’re too young to know. If you take a moment to remember your first crush, you were probably as young if not younger than your child. The age isn’t really important, as much as learning how to appropriately manage the experience of “liking” someone—no matter the orientation.
Tell them this is a phase and/or they are confused. Your child has probably spent a lot of time thinking, processing, and questioning their truth. To then be told that they are wrong about their conclusion can be very damaging and hurtful to the future development of their sexual identity. And we all want healthy, sexual adults—which your child will be one day!
Inundate them with questions. Even though your child has given their attractions some thought, it doesn’t mean they know everything. They are still growing, learning, and experiencing life. A person may have known at five that their attractions/behaviors were “different” but they haven’t seen the full picture of themselves yet; this is just one major part. And our understanding of our sexual selves can change over a lifetime—for example, you may or may not be attracted to the same type of person now as you were when you were in high school.
Rehash their childhood looking for a “reason.”You did nothing wrong; nor did your partner. Many parents go through a stage where they dig all the way back to the night of conception or the first day their child came home to see if there is something they did “wrong.” This will just make you tired and falsely secure that there was something you could have “fixed.”
Coming out may be a major release for your child and simultaneously the scariest thing she has done in her whole life. So whatever your child has shared with you about her attractions is what she knows. And what she knows today may be different 10 years from now. But neither you nor your child need to have those answers right now. I encourage you to keep the lines of communication open and positive and take care of yourself. Remember—it’s a journey.
*It is important to note a critique on most sexual orientation models: almost all were developed after studying individuals who are white/Caucasian. Racial and ethnic minorities have also researched and developed models that more accurately reflect their coming out processes.
LaShay Harvey Jones, M.Ed., is a sexologist, professor, and researcher from the south, currently living in Baltimore, MD. LaShay teaches a course on sexuality and a course on gender at The University of Baltimore. She also coordinates a study on pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) at The Johns Hopkins University. You can find her at www.LaShayHarvey.com and follow her blog LaShay Holds Court.
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